Climate Change

I have started a course on Climate Change with the University of Exeter. I thought, since I am now more involved with renewable energy through WREN, I had better be up to speed with the science of climate change. And since it is a free course, run online and open to masses of people worldwide, it is termed a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. So now you know.

I’ve set up a new series of pages blogging my experience with the course, so as not to confuse my intermittent personal ramblings with course-related stuff (to use a technical term). Click on “Climate Change” in the menu bar, or hover over it to view a drop-down list of postings, if you really want to see.

’Tis the season to be jolly

We need to be better organised this year, we said. Get the Christmas cards out with our change of address before people start sending things to Woking. We were firmly agreed on that.

So on December 18th, our cards caught the last post for Christmas delivery.

This year, Ellie and Joe were spending Christmas with Joe’s parents in Petersfield and came to us from 21st to 24th, so we started Christmas eating early, with a large roast ham for when they arrived, followed by a large roast beef the next day and a large curry at the Raj the day after that. We didn’t want to inflict too much turkey on them, you see, with no doubt a turkey to come at Petersfield.

We have a family tradition that goes back countless years to the time when Ellie and Tris became too old for Father Christmas, but we still wanted some of the thrill of opening lots of small presents, and at a more reasonable hour of the day. So Diana invented the “Christmas Box”, which is, quite literally a box – at first wooden, but latterly cardboard – into which everyone puts some wrapped but unmarked presents. Then we take it in turns to pick out a present based on size, shape, weight and solidity (or squishiness) and open it. There is a joy in watching a sci-fi action movie fan open what they are sure is a DVD to find a romcom. But that doesn’t matter. When all presents have been opened, the fun begins. ‘Swap you this romcom for that Michael Moorcock Elric novel?” Usually, everyone ends up with a bunch of stuff they quite like.

This year, since Ellie and Joe would be gone by Christmas Day, we had the Christmas Box on the morning of Christmas Eve, followed by brunch, followed by scrutinising with an intense scrute the road conditions as shown on traffic websites, trying to find a route not under water for some of its length. Ellie decided to take the safe option on the motorways and they got to Petersfield very easily.

For Christmas Day, having eaten a lot of meat, Diana, Tris and I opted for a side of salmon, despite Diana having tracked down and captured a half-price turkey in Tesco. We ate that on Boxing Day – well, some of it.

When Tris opened the front door on Boxing Day to go for a walk, she called out, “Dad, I think you need to look at this.” “What is it?” I said. “I think it’s obvious,” she said. Across the path, broken in two, lay the cast iron gutter from the porch, brought down in the storms. Either the storms, or local vandals swinging on it. (I know what I’m telling the insurance company.) The gutter was, we believe, original and matched the one on the neighbours’ porch, with which ours joined up. Closer examination revealed that where the two bits of gutter had been joined, a third, very small bit had broken off the corner, meaning that I couldn’t just put it back up and slap in some sealant.

When I was at school, we discovered that a full-sized piece of chalk when dropped on the floor would always break into three parts. Being good scientists, when we observed this phenomenon, we had to go on to perform a proper scientific test with a large enough sample of chalks. By the time we were satisfied, we had used up most of the box. We had to use up the rest of the box to demonstrate the finding to our unbelieving fellow pupils. Sorry, I digress.

I await the call back from the roof and gutter specialist I telephoned after the insurance company said their people were very busy, what with there having been a storm across Britain and all.

On Friday, Tris and I went in search of a pool table. She needed some practice ahead of returning to Oxford and trying out for the university women’s pool team. Having dropped in on the Bridge on Wool after WREN board meetings, I knew they had a pool table. We went in and I looked round to where the table should have been. “No, we’ve taken the table away over Christmas because we have functions on,” said the person behind the bar. “Come back on January 2nd. Sorry.”

We crossed the road to the Swan and found an unoccupied pool table. While Tris put in 50p and set up the balls, I bought some drinks and just as I was paying, the barman said, “Sorry, but some joker nicked the white last night and the brewery hasn’t sent a new one yet. Have your 50p back.” We drank the drinks (mine a not very nice pint of St Austell Dartmoor) and used one of the reds as a cue ball, watching it closely so we used the same red each time, to play a not wholly satisfactory game (which Tris won easily).

We walked back up the hill, looking in on the Molesworth Arms and failing to spot a pool table, before being forced into trying the Churchill Bars, in which lurks the local Conservative Club. There were half a dozen customers, all sitting round the bar. We walked past to where I had once seen a pool table, and my heart sank as I saw loudspeakers and lighting stands. “We’ve got a function on…”

Which doesn’t bring us quite up to date, but we had a lazy weekend, nothing to see here, move along, please.

Spot the Dog

Spot the Dog: this is neither an invocation to locate a canine illicitly transgressing on Polzeath beach after Easter, nor an invitation to drip paint over a mutt, nor even a recitation of the title of a favourite children’s picture book. And certainly not a review of poor-performing investment funds…

It is rather a Wadebridge band featuring Stephen on guitar, Lizzy-Jane on double-bass and Adrian on keyboards. Or perhaps it is a twice a month gathering of the aforesaid trio together with assorted and various other local musicians and poets in the Picture and Coffee House on Molesworth Street, Wadebridge. This establishment will sell you a picture or a coffee at the drop of a hat, and more importantly a beer with even less reticence. You can pick up a Doom Bar or a Cornish Pilsner (best lager in the world, apparently; I haven’t tried them all, but this one was pretty good)

We went down a couple of weeks ago, Diana and I, to see what it was all about. It was pretty full, but we found seats with some people we knew, right by the door and, it seemed, even closer to the draught when the door was opened. People played music, and told stories, and read poems, some original and some by famous poets. Diana read one she had brought along (we did have an inkling of what to expect).

We went again yesterday. The place was emptier and we could sit out of the draught, but further away, as it turned out, from other people we knew. Spot the Dog was playing as we arrived and a few others joined in. We drank a beer or two – let me be more precise, I drank a beer or two while Diana had a hot chocolate – and listened. The music paused, the musicians needing a break and to recharge their batteries glasses, and Lizzy-Jane asked if anyone wanted to read something. We waved a hand vaguely and Diana stood to read a poem she had written at the Indian Kings poets group. There was merited applause and someone asked if it was her own. Yes, she asserted, and there was more applause. Well, it was a good poem.

I then stood to read a poem I had written some four or five years earlier at Woking Writers Circle with a metre and rhythm borrowed from the ancient Norse (oh, all right then, lifted from Hiawatha). It also received applause. There were other readings of favourite poets including Dylan Thomas. A couple of people came over to chat. The music resumed. Later on, Lizzy-Jane asked if we had been given enough time, whether there was anything else we wanted to read. I assured her it was okay. One poem a fortnight is hard to keep up with; more than one would exhaust the backlog much too quickly

The highlight of the evening came accidentally part way through. A guy had a long instrument in a bag, which he slowly extracted, being careful not to impale the ceiling with it. It proved to be a didgeridoo (though he probably knew that all along).

Proof – there was a didgeridoo

Proof. There really was a didgeridoo.

He began to play and a few others joined in, improvising (I am fairly sure). At the end of the piece he seemed totally breathless, but was prevailed upon to play again. Even more people joined in, making a sound not aboriginal Australian, and not Indian and not South American, though there were hints of all of them. Well, why listen to me trying to explain it when there is this recording of the last minute and half (which was when I realised I could record it on my iPhone – I’m quick that way, hem hem).

We’ll be going again.



Parallel Blogs

I’ve started writing another blog, for the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN). You can find it here, and I’ve put in a permanent link on the right hand side of the home page – A WREN Blog.

This does not mean any lessening of the trivia usually displayed here; it’s something extra.

The latest entry over there is about a demo that Diana and I went on the weekend before last. It’s called PIMBY Protest, and if you want to know what a PIMBY is, click across and have a look.

A Week of Dining Out

For my birthday a few months ago, my Mum, brother and sister and families gave me vouchers for a meal at Margot’s Bistro in Padstow. I tried booking a table in the early summer, but they were booked up for weeks ahead, so I left it for a while. Then it occurred to me that our 30th wedding anniversary would be a good excuse for a posh nosh so in September I made the booking and on Tuesday we turned up, Diana and I, and Tris, of course, since she hadn’t gone back to Oxford yet.

We parked in the quayside car park, which is run by the Padstow Harbour Commissioners and charges 24 hours a day, every day, unlike the municipal car parks. (Padstow Harbour Commissioners also run the car park outside our favourite Indian restaurant in Wadebridge, with a similar charging policy. Their reach is long. You don’t mess with the Commissioners…) It was a short walk through the town to Margot’s, which turned out to be a small place with only 20 seats. We were expected, since they had taken the trouble to text me asking for confirmation of my booking that morning. And that was just as well, because the place filled up.

The service was suitably attentive, but not overbearing. I decided to celebrate with a glass of champagne, while Tris and Diana went for non-alcoholic drinks and we toasted thirty years, and the next thirty. We all chose the same starter, seared Cornish scallops with mixed leaves, herb oil and parsnip crisps. Plates arrived with six scallops arranged around a pile of mixed leaves with the crisps scattered over the top. They were beautifully cooked, seared on one side and moist through.

Diana and Tris had the whole baked lemon sole with new potatoes, tomato and chive butter sauce. I broke ranks with roast breast of Cornish chicken with spring onion mash, crisp ham and tarragon cream sauce. We added a side dish of mixed vegetables. The main courses, too, met with approval. For pudding, Tris had iced coffee parfait with brandy snap and chocolate sauce, Diana had saffron poached pear with clotted cream and jelly, and I had sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce and double cream. Mmmmm!

We finished with coffee, tea, chocolate fudge and caramelised walnuts. The bill came to quite a lot, using our vouchers and then some, but it was worth the money. I took away a copy of the day’s menu as a souvenir (which is how the descriptions of the food we had managed to be so detailed).

The next day, we had fish and chips (and mushy peas), Tris’ last chance of them before returning to Oxford for the term. There are two fish and chip establishments in Wadebridge – Barney’s (owned by the Barnecutt conglomerate) and Rick’s (or Jon’s, depending whether you look at the sign on the road-side, or over the shop). We tend to use Barney’s because Rick’s/Jon’s mushy peas are rubbish. However, Barney’s hasn’t been great the last few times, so maybe we’ll try the other one some time soon, except for the mushy peas. Fish and chips also has the merit of being fairly rapid and low effort, and since we’d spent the day packing all Tris’ stuff and clearing space in the garage to put the loaded car into overnight, we were in need of something “low effort”.

On Thursday morning we set off for Oxford, managing to leave behind only the bike lights, helmet and bungee clips (which will go up by post this week). We stopped at Gordano services in Bristol for lunch (sandwiches, pizza) and then again at Chievely services for a cup of tea and a bun before heading into Oxford. Our unloading technique is pretty slick these days and we had Tris established in her room in under three hours. We then headed up to Cowley to stay with Ellie and Joe overnight. Ellie cooked us a pleasant beef curry and we slept on an Ikea sofa-bed, which was fine. In the morning we came home, a journey slightly disrupted by a warning message from the car to check the oil level. We couldn’t check it immediately, being on the motorway, but pulled in at the next service area. “Feed me one litre,” demanded the car. We decided it could wait while we had lunch (mushroom soup and sandwich), mainly because the petrol station came after the cafe. We arrived home and flopped. Supper was beans on toast.

On Saturday evening, we walked into town for dinner at the Granary. This is mainly a breakfast and lunch restaurant, which also opens on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from six until ‘the chef gets tired’. Evidently he got tired very early this Saturday, since it was closed when we got there a bit after seven. We went down a side street to another restaurant, to find that also closed, and then made for the Glasshouse, which was pleasant enough, but not up to Margot’s.

On Sunday, I cooked dinner. Our (short) week of dining out was over.

Wadebridge Energy Futures

On Friday, around 4:30 pm, I walked down to the town hall, where the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) had an exhibition called “Wadebridge Energy Futures”. Friday was also the day of the WREN annual general meeting, so I figured that I could walk down just once, see the exhibition, and then hang around and maybe help out for the forty-five minutes before the AGM, rather than walk up and back again.

The exhibition traced the sources of energy and power used in Wadebridge from the start of the industrial revolution (water wheels) through coal-fired steam engines (1834) and its own coal gas works (1850) to its own diesel-fired electricity generation plant (1926), ending with the national grids for distributing electricity and gas and the closure of the railway.

And then it went on, because the exhibition was about energy futures and the aim of making Wadebridge self-sufficient in energy – not for the first time, but once again – and cutting reliance on the national grids and the Russian and Qatari gas and nuclear fission and coal and, who knows, our own fracking gas. (Who else out there watched Battlestar Galactica and can’t hear serious newsreaders talk of ‘fracking’ without a faint smile?)

And this time, Wadebridge won’t use coal and oil as the source of power, but rather wind and solar and geothermal… The clue is in the name: Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network. There’s no sense in being too subtle about this.

My offer of help was well received as we transformed the exhibition from being a horseshoe shape in the middle of the hall to two lines down the sides, with 140 chairs in the middle for the AGM and the open meeting to follow it. It helped that David whom I knew from the bowling club was there, a WREN director no less.

WREN is actually a limited company, so the AGM followed a prescribed and familiar form, with rather more free-form questions and discussion than limited companies normally allow. The Shell AGM, for example, tries hard to stick to the formalities, fending off the various protestors brandishing their one share, trying to promote their own agendas. It was interesting to see that the directors sat in the body of the hall, facing the members, rather than on the stage (which was set out with chairs for the later meeting). The chairman, Stephen, emphasised that the directors were there to do what the members wanted, a touch of humility that the banking sector, for example, would do well to emulate. But then, WREN exists to promote renewable energy, not to make a profit for its members and certainly not to enrich its (volunteer) directors.

At the end of the AGM, the WREN members were invited to help themselves to the refreshments. Having got there early, I’d already had a pint of Doom Bar (£2) and a couple of sandwiches, so I restricted myself to another sandwich and a cake. Other people came into the hall for the open meeting and slowly the guest speakers were assembled and ushered onto the stage.

First, after an introduction from Stephen, we had Peter Tutthill, president of the Wadebridge and District Museum (about to open in new premises) who enthused about the history of Wadebridge. He said he could go on for hours, but only had ten minutes. If I see he’s speaking again, it will be worth going to hear some of those hours. Steve Knightley is the newly elected LibDem county councillor for Wadebridge East and spoke about the unique attributes that Cornwall possesses, being close to the sea for wave and tide power, and wind power too, for that matter, and receiving more than the average amount of sunlight (2012 excluded). Sarah Prosser, chair of the Wadebridge Chamber of Commerce spoke of the fragility of relying on tourism for income and employment. A number of local businesses had been on the brink, saved by the sunshine we had this year. Wadebridge needs to brand itself as the low carbon town.

The next speaker was a primary schoolgirl, Maisy New, who thanked us for preserving the environment, keeping water fresh and clean, not letting the global temperature run away, and so on – the sting being that she was speaking as if from fifty years hence when we had actually done all these things. Let’s hope we can measure up to her expectations.

Professor Anne Carlisle, vice-chancellor of Falmouth University, was next, extolling Cornwall’s virtues (see Steve Knightley above). Cornwall has the potential to be the test bed for renewables. Julian German, the Cornwall Council portfolio holder for Economy and Culture, said that Cornwall Council is making loans to local energy groups. Renewable energy can be cheaper, and be a source of employment and revenue. Finally, Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project, spoke about achieving change. You get it, he said, by hanging on to the thing you want so that “they” know you are not going away. WREN must not allow itself to be seen, or be characterised, as hippie, as “other”. It must be “normal”, be “us”, not “them”, must include everyone in Wadebridge. Otherwise, it will be marginalised.

Discussion opened up to the floor, with people making points and asking questions. One person in particular was concerned with the landscape (which he quoted Julian German as saying was Cornwall’s greatest asset), and the detrimental impact renewable energy could have – windmills blighting the skyline, solar panel arrays covering the green fields – which would put off tourists and devalue the asset. This provoked a sometimes heated response, along the lines of not wanting Cornwall’s economy to be reliant on skittish tourists coming from the smoke to gawp at the scenery, that the landscape was by no means “natural”, having been crafted by farming over centuries, and that there would be no landscape if global warming were allowed to run unchecked. My instinctive reaction, too, was: “Nimby”; I like windmills.

But, you cannot be merely dismissive. We need people like this to apply the brakes every so often. I used to get very frustrated, when at work, with people who objected to projects, which were of obvious value and merit, and who slowed things down when speed seemed of the essence. Almost invariably, it turned out, the time taken to address the concerns of such people, to rethink aspects of the project, paid off in better projects with better outcomes. I’m sure it’s true for renewables projects as well. The lovers of landscape can’t have a veto, but nor can they be disregarded.

I’ll leave the last word, the long view, with the local historian, Peter. In their day, the mines disfigured the landscape, the china clay pits even more so, but Cornwall has absorbed them all, and they are part now of what people come to see. The same will happen with renewables.


Last week was culture week in the Smith household. On Wednesday 11th, Diana and I went to see Simon Armitage read his poetry and talk to the audience at Wadebridge Library. We wrote it up for the poetry website, Write Out Loud, so I won’t repeat myself. Click on this link to see what it was all about.

Diana with Simon Armitage

Diana with Simon Armitage

On Thursday 12th, we were invited to a talk by Ges Wallace of Tate St Ives on the relationship between contemporary artist Linder and sculptor Barbara Hepworth – not an entirely random topic as the Tate is currently running an exhibition which it describes as: “The artist Linder brings together a group of her own collages with seven sculptures by Barbara Hepworth.” Ms Wallace enthused about Hepworth but seemed taken aback by how literally Linder’s work seemed to express her ideas. I’m always a bit dubious about art that uses collage and found objects. I remember seeing an exhibition by Sherrie Levine at the Guggenheim in New York three years ago, called After Rodchenko 1-12. The work was described as “appropriation”, seeing as how the twelve pieces were all originally by Rodchenko. At least Levine acknowledged the origin. Linder’s collages used images cut from magazines with no (apparent) attribution to the image creator.

We also saw a video of a new ballet, The Ultimate Form. “Choreographed by Linder and Kenneth Tindall of Northern Ballet, and performed by Northern Ballet, it is based on Hepworth’s monumental sculptural work The Family of Man 1970 and features costumes created by cult fashion designer Pam Hogg and a new score by Stuart McCollum,” as the Tate describes it. It was “slow dance”, but impressive. We had the time to see the skill and power of the dancers – much better than the frenetic jiggling of the professionals’ pieces on Strictly. The costumes were a bit reminiscent of Seventies film sci-fi, though.

This was all provided gratis by Mercedes-Benz South West, who laid on drinks and refreshments as well, with a couple of chefs cooking up a rather good stir-fry and rice on the spot. I think they think we’re good customers…

On Saturday, I played bowls for Wadebridge in a friendly against Lostwithiel. Yes, at the end of my first season I was picked for a team. A list went up a few weeks ago in the clubhouse, I put my name down and was picked. Lostwithiel Bowls Club is outside the town, on the way to Restormel Castle, and has great views down into a valley and up to the hills. It rained on Friday and Sunday, but Saturday was great. My rink (number four of five) won by one shot on the last end, but my lift went (and I with it) before we found out the final score for the match. Next Saturday is the final day of the season, and features an internal match between the President and the Captain. I’m in the President’s team.

Is bowls “culture”? It has its own culture, shall we say, not least the use of handwritten lists on clubhouse notice boards, rather than anything new-fangled electronic, such as email.

Sunday represented the cultural highlight of the week. Diana, Tris (returned from a jaunt to Oxford) and I went down the Regal Cinema in Wadebridge for the evening showing of… Kick Ass 2.

There Will Be Blood

Last Friday, 6th September, was the Orieladelphians Dinner, the 39th of its kind, organised by Ranulph. It was the first of its kind for which I had to travel from Cornwall rather than Surrey. Clearly I was going to go by train. Years of experience have taught me that driving the morning after an Orieladelphians Dinner is not a good thing. It’s not even legal. No, there’s no special Orieladelphian driving laws been passed; it’s just the application of good old drink-driving ones. In addition, taking the train is cheaper and quicker than driving myself to Oxford, especially with a senior railcard.

I realised I didn’t have a senior railcard. I applied for it online and it arrived the next day. Remarkable. The next decision was how to get to Bodmin Parkway station. I could catch the hourly 555 bus from right outside our house, but it is carefully timed to arrive at Bodmin Parkway 50 minutes before the train departs, or ten minutes after, if you care to think about it that way. Diana had an appointment so couldn’t drive me there. I eventually worked out I could drive myself in the other car, pay for two days parking (the princely sum of £2.60) and have the car available to drive myself home – the extra hours on the train being sufficient, I reckoned, to up the levels of blood in my alcohol stream to a legal level.

I bought my tickets online and collected them from the ticket machine at Bodmin Parkway when taking daughter’s friend to the station a few days later. On Friday morning, I set out in the little car, allowing time for getting caught behind tractors (Cornwall is a proper agricultural county and this time of year you have to expect tractors). I parked and used my phone to pay for two days parking. It was too far from the end of the car park to walk to the ticket machine, buy the ticket, walk back to the car to display it and walk again to the station platform with my luggage.

Chatting to a uniformed gent from the Bodmin and Wenford (steam) railway who had set up shop on the platform I learned that my reserved seat, being in Coach D, would have its own TV screen. Possibly in consequence, Coach D was very full, with most seats reserved, and I had to cast out someone from my seat. She tried to tell me it wasn’t reserved, and indeed there was no reservation ticket on the seat, but I had my receipt and she had to go. I found the reservation ticket torn in two on the floor a few minutes later.

The most interesting thing on the TV was the journey map, that told where you were in real time. The system was obviously lifted wholesale from one used on airlines, because it also showed the speed and altitude. Altitude? On a train? I want my trains to remain on the ground, thank you very much.

The seat next to mine was reserved from Plymouth. A guy duly got on at Plymouth, put his bags on the rack and sat down. Just before Exeter, he got up to “get a cup of tea” and I didn’t see him again. I assume he changed his mind about the tea and went for a meal in the dining car all the way to Paddington instead. It was pleasant to have no one next to me, but I did have to keep fending off people who wanted to sit there.

After tracking alongside the M5 for a good few miles, going easily past the cars speeding in the outside lanes, the railway ran inland and alongside the Kennet and Avon canal, where we would no doubt have easily passed the narrow boats, had there been any. I changed at Reading and arrived in Oxford in the mid-afternoon.

The dinner itself was 7 for 7.30 pm. I decided that this year, after flouting tradition with a white tuxedo and yellow bow tie and cummerbund the previous two years, I would be the epitome of sober respectability in unremarkable black dinner suit and black tie. This was remarked upon. “Don’t you normally wear a horrible mustard tie?” they said. “Not this year,” I said. “I am the epitome of sober respectability this year.” (These might not have been the actual words used.)

At pre-dinner drinks, only two of our usual guests arrived, Gill the former Steward who let us back into the college in the early years, and Syd the former SCR Butler. Neil thought that Ernest, the former Provost, had been ill. There were nine Orieladelphians present, the nine survivors, since Edward’s death earlier in the year:  Ranulph (president, at the head of the table), Paul, Neil, Thomas, Christopher, Steve (next president), Peter, Ashley and me. Five extra places were laid. We always have the extra places laid but we don’t always have them laid with bread rolls.

IMG_0602The dinner was good. I remember especially the broad beans, about eight of them arranged in a straight line between the meat (loin of lamb) and the other vegetables (confit potatoes and crushed minted peas). My late father, a broad bean afficionado, would have been greatly disappointed by the quantity. The wine was excellent. I remember especially the Montbazillac pudding wine. At least, I do when jogged by the printed menu, a copy of  which I liberated, as usual.

After dinner, we adjourned to the small SCR and I found myself in a seat altogether too close to the occasional table with the brandy bottle on it. At some point I left to go to bed. I have no idea what time it was. I have no real recollection of leaving the SCR, but I did get to my room and I did go to bed. Perhaps fortunately, I had a ground floor room.

During the night, I woke up needing a pee. There was a nice convenient en-suite shower room and loo. I drank a couple of cups of water, this being a good thing, I thought, to deal with alcohol in excess. I found myself sitting on the floor of the shower room, not at all sure how I’d got there – certainly there was no conscious decision on my part to sit down. I returned to bed.

My alarm went off at 8:15, which gave me enough time to get in to breakfast. My head ached a bit, but not in a hangovery sort of way. I put my hand to it and found encrusted blood. I looked at my pillow and found small blood stains. I tried to wash out the encrusted blood and it came away, to be replaced with fresh blood. I wasn’t bleeding badly, though. Clearly, I deduced, I had done more than merely sit down on the shower room floor, but what, exactly? I dressed and went to breakfast.

The lady behind the counter insisted on giving me two of everything – fried eggs, sausages, rashers of bacon – but I couldn’t eat it all. This was a hangover symptom, but I didn’t feel particularly bad in any other way. My stomach wasn’t queasy, I didn’t have a pounding head, I just didn’t feel like eating much. Rosie noticed. “What have you done to your head?” she said. “I think I must have fallen over,” I said. Ashley thought that this was quite likely. “You did leave the room sideways last night,” was his considered medical opinion.

After breakfast I went back to my room to pack. Sitting on the loo, I saw a red smear on the tiles about a foot up from the floor. So that’s where I went down, I concluded. It was in a nice clear area, under the shower. No protruding radiators or towel rails, just a smooth tiled wall. This was in several ways fortunate. I cleaned the blood off and checked out.

I met Ellie for coffee at Oxford station. She had the coffee, I didn’t bother. I did buy a tuna sandwich, in case of feeling hungry at lunchtime, and as I bent down to put it in my bag, she noticed the blood, which I had to explain, somewhat shamefacedly. Back home, Diana was suitably sympathetic (i.e. just enough, without going overboard, given the self-inflicted nature of the injury) and Tris was outraged by the thought of her father behaving more outrageously than herself. It wasn’t until Saturday night that I noticed the tender spot on the back of my head and Sunday morning the bruises on my elbows, fleshing out the picture, as you might say.

So much for sober respectability. Next Orieladelphians, I’m wearing a clown suit.


We have a new pet. It’s not a replacement pet, we’ve never had a pet before, unless you count the pet rocks when the children were little. It’s a totally new pet.

What, you might ask, are we doing with a pet after so many years where our pet hate was just that? Especially a pet that was quite expensive to buy. The answer lies in its characteristics. Its demands are minimal, though occasionally it asks to be picked up, and it feeds itself, in the right circumstances. It doesn’t shed hairs all over the place, quite the contrary, though it does require grooming every so often to remove tangles. It’s fearful of stairs, so you’ll never find it unexpectedly in the bedroom. It bimbles unpredictably around the room, sometimes bumping into things, but always very gently. It makes little burbles of delight when it achieves something. It’s downright entertaining to watch.

“What is it, then,” you might pose as a follow up question, “this paragon of pets? It doesn’t sound like any cat or dog I’ve ever heard of, nor tortoise or guinea pig, or fish.”

And you’d be right. It’s not like any of those things, seeing as how they are essentially organic. This is an inorganic pet – a robot. I’ll come clean, which is just what the pet is supposed to do. It’s an iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner.

When you set Roombie (as I imaginatively call it) going, it’s very hard to avoid the impression that it is alive as it wanders underneath the sideboard, bumps into the walls and trundles across the carpet. It finds its way into small spaces but then has to bump around until it finds its way out again, with all the strategic awareness of a bee battering against a window pane. The most efficient way to use it is to clear the floor of small things and leave only the sofas and armchairs and other large furniture. The most entertaining is to leave everything where it is, in fact to construct a sort of maze, and see how it gets on.

I expect the novelty will wear off, but even then we’ll have cleaner floors.

Sixty: a comedy in three acts

Act I: The Birthday

My sixtieth birthday fell on a Sunday. Not the Sunday of my party, but the one before. Diana and I were on our own in Cornwall and decided that visiting the Eden Project would be the thing. I booked tickets on-line a couple of days before, getting the cheap rate, and said OK to Gift Aid which converted our tickets into passes for the year. I also booked a slot on the Skywire. This is a long wire, which you hang underneath and slide down at high speed. I had thought about going on it a few years ago, but arrived just after it closed for the evening. Now they have upgraded it so you don’t just hang in a sitting position, you fly face down, Superman-style. Now they have upgraded it and charge you a tenner.

It was a hot, sunny day, which is the right type of weather for seeing the Eden Project. On hot sunny days, tourists head to the beaches. When it rains, they think, “The Eden Project is under cover, let’s go there.” And they do, in their thousands. And then they find that an awful lot of the Eden Project is not undercover…

We were directed into a car park not far from the entrance and strolled down to the ‘prepaid’ counter where we received our annual passes. We had to sign them in front of the person on the counter. At the door out of the entrance building there was a sign saying “Skywire closed due to high winds.” The winds didn’t seem very high to me, but the Skywire was closed anyway. (I got a refund later, with no problem. They must be used to it.)

We took a zig-zag route from the entrance down to the biomes (actually, all the paths zig-zag), pausing to look at the flowers on the way. At the bottom we decided that we had earned a cup of coffee. There were many entrances to the cafe, but most were closed with signs directing you to the open one. In peak season I guess they would all be open. (We won’t find out; we won’t go there in peak season.)

Once inside the entrance to the biomes, we found the PCs to register ourselves as owners of the passes. There I discovered that I had already done that when booking the tickets, and moreover that we had each signed the other’s card. Bummer. But it proved easy to change the name on the registration system, so I became Diana and Diana became me. Symbolic or what?

The tropical biome was hot. The viewing platform, looking down upon the whole forest, was closed for safety reasons: a chalked sign said the temperature up there was over 40C. But we looked at the plants, read the display boards  and poked around in the replica houses from Africa, Asia and South America.

It was now lunch time, so we returned to the cafe for a very nice something or other with salad and duly fortified went on to the Mediterranean biome, where almost the first thing we saw was a Mediterranean restaurant. I’ll try to remember that for next time. We walked round that biome and ventured outdoors again, heading up the hillside. A striking sculpture above us seemed to be moving in the wind (even though, as previously mentioned, the wind did not seem high). When we got to the sculpture, we saw it was connected to a rope, with a sign saying “Pull”. So I did, and the sculpture moved, rocking backwards and forwards. Not the wind then.IMG_0522

We followed paths up and then down again, through the gardens to the Core, an education centre with hands on stuff for kids to do. And a lift up to entrance level, if you don’t want to walk. At the top of the lift is a viewing platform, with a good view, as it happens, of the Skywire. It turned out it doesn’t run from where I thought it did, but from one of the car parks. If it hadn’t been closed, I would have missed my time slot anyway.

We got home feeling we’d had a good day out.


Act II: The Party

I had to give careful thought to a location for my birthday party. At home in Woking was not a good idea because there was a fair chance it wouldn’t be our home by the time June came. At home in Wadebridge was not a good idea because it is miles and miles from the rest of the country. (This is why we have spare bedroom accommodation at Wadebridge, so that people can come and stay for a few days.) (Hint hint!)

What I wanted was somewhere fairly central and attractive and special in its own right. I took some inspiration from friend Bob’s 60th held in Dr Johnson’s house, a small museum in London of which his daughter happened to be the curator. I have a daughter, but her workplace – the Structural Genomics Consortium laboratory in Oxford – seemed not quite the thing. Oxford, however…

Thinking about where my friends are (all over the place – geographically, that is) it seemed more and more that my old Oxford college, Oriel, would be the ideal venue. I contacted the conference department.

“We can’t do June 9th because it is still term time and there is a college function that day. But you could have the Second Quad a week later on 16th June, with the Champneys Room as a back up in case of rain.” (If you can remember back that far, the “in case of rain” option was a vital and necessary thing to have, seeing as how for a year or more the chances of rain on any given future date had been in the vicinity of 100%.)

I booked it for 80 people (a figure plucked more or less out of the air) and set about compiling a list of people to invite. Family members – wife, children, parent, siblings, in-laws, uncles, aunts, cousin, nieces and nephews. The Orieladelphians, no strangers to Oriel, as you might imagine. There were past members of the Oxford University SF Group, who spent a year coming to Oriel for meetings, but might not remember it, and the writers’ group (Pieria) that grew out of it. There were Shell folk, both current staff who are working hard to maintain the value of my pension fund and SOGs who are working hard (as am I) to spend it. There were Woking Writers Circle members, Woking neighbours, Wadebridge neighbours and other friends.

The invitations went out and the replies came in. At first refusals moved ahead as all the people who were already booked for holidays, other birthdays (the effrontery – other people having significant birthdays coinciding with mine!) and the Isle of Wight Festival responded promptly. Then acceptances took the lead (reassuringly) and pretty much held it, with some people from every friendship group. I confirmed 60 people with Oriel.

In the week before the party, I started obsessively tracking the BBC weather forecast for Oxford. It looked grim for the 16th: rain. But things improved and by the day before, a sunny afternoon was forecast. Hurray! But as we set off for Oxford from Woking (we still owned the house there, as it happens) on Sunday morning, birthday cake as cooked by Diana safely stowed, there were a few drops of rain and the forecast had changed to showers. Boo! We parked and rode, me carrying the overnight bags and Diana the cake, and arrived at Oriel with damp in the air. We were not surprised to find an empty second quad and a bustle of activity in the Champneys Room.

Diana put candles on the cake and we took our bags to the college guest room we had booked for the night. We returned to the Champneys Room to find Tris already there, along with Gerry and Gill and Martin, Jane, Frances, Keiran and Justin. Late for my own party! I said hello to everyone and then more people started arriving.

Extended conversations were impossible as every time I got into one, I had to break off to greet someone new. Several kind people brought cards and presents, which were put on the table next to the cake. The Oriel staff moved amongst us with champagne and canapes. Tea and coffee were at the other end of the room. Sandwiches were on the table.

IMG_0525People talked and there seemed to be a great deal of mixing of groups without my having to do much stirring. After a couple of hours it seemed time for the speeches, one from Diana saying broadly what a wonderful bloke I was and one from me broadly agreeing. I think there were sufficient jokes in each. People laughed, anyway. Then Diana lit the candles, there was a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ and I blew the candles out, managing 12 of the 13 in one go. The butler removed the cake, cut it into 60 pieces and brought it back on plates for people.

People started to drift away, all seeming to have had a good time. At the end it was just my immediate family – Diana, Tris, Ellie and Joe. We carried the cards and presents to our college room and headed to The Bear for a drink. By this time there was no rain and it was pleasant to sit outside with a pint or soft drink. (Guess who had the pint?) Ellie and Joe went home and Tris, Diana and I found an Italian restaurant for a pizza.

The next day was hot and sunny – wouldn’t you know it? – as we sweated over packing all of Tris’ stuff from Wadham into the car. Using my master of 3-D random tetris abilities to the full, we got everything in, except Tris. She had to catch the train.

Act III: Being Sixty

I don’t feel I ought to be sixty, not yet. I’m not convinced, inside, that I’m that much a grown-up. I still feel much as I always did – except for the grey hair, the aching feet, the creaky legs, the presbyopic eyesight, the failing memory, the aching back, the failing memory…

There’s stuff you can do and get at sixty that you can’t when younger. Free prescriptions (needed to cope with the feet and the legs and the back and the, whatever). A senior railcard for cheap(er) rail travel, but no bus pass, not yet, not for another four years. Discounted admission to the Eden Project, but not yet to the Regal Cinema. And the big one, the invitation to participate in bowel cancer screening. (In the interests of delicacy, I shall say no more.)

The great delight, and it comes from being retired rather than sixty per se, is being in Cornwall with no work to do and the beaches and cliffs and moors to explore or revisit, or not. Doing nothing is fun too. I say again, get in touch and come to visit.